Contemporary Music and its Place in Society

A piano concert by Peter Eötvös on a Sunday afternoon, the audience applauds enthusiastically. Is that even thinkable? Or a premiere by Nicolaus A. Huber in the Berlin Concert Hall in which the orchestra’s subscribers listen raptly, in deep concentration, even with dedication. Can you imagine that?

These two scenarios are not imaginary, they happened as described. And they make one thing clear above all: Contemporary music is no longer imaginable banned from concert halls, but has become an indispensable part of Germany’s musical life instead. The days in which audience members, red-faced with fury, slammed doors to give voice to their displeasure and disrupt the performance, when composers were forced to publically justify every dissonancein their notation, are long past. And because the avant-garde is increasingly gaining attention and recognition in the area of pop culture, the contemporary music’s status has improved even more in recent years.

Out of the sub-culture niche and into the concert halls

But we must not forget that the contemporary music’s path to an established place in society – and a certain unquestionedness that comes with acceptance – has been long and hard. How did it come about? Well, naturally the composers and their music are responsible for it. If it had not been for the many classics of modern music, masterpieces that appeal even to an inexperienced and sceptical public, that enthuse or even confuse their hearers – contemporary music would have a difficult time of it indeed. But works, too, require institutions, musicians, concert halls and audiences.

Thus, a whole series of areas of musical life that provided support to contemporary music over the decades deserves mention. In order to get a picture of Germany’s contemporary music in all its breadth and diversity, its various sources and its history, it is helpful to deal with individual areas one at a time: musicians and ensembles, concerts and festivals, the special role played by broadcasters, the state of education and training and the universities, as well as a look at the still-young genre of sound art and its prospects.

A new beginning after 1945

Certainly, the origins of the contemporary music’s great significance in Germany today are to be located in the country’s overall new beginning after 1945, one that was to pave the way not only for a new society, but for a new kind of music as well. Germany became the new homeland of many composers from abroad: Mauricio Kagel of Argentina, György Ligeti from Hungary, and Isang Yun from South Korea. And the international approach of the Darmstadt summer courses also lent the contemporary music a cosmopolitanism for which the country was thirsting in the 1950’s.

All these factors contributed decisively to the fact that today, a whole series of outstanding composers are living in Germany, that extraordinary ensembles have developed, and also that an open-minded and interested public has matured in the course of the years. The occasionally fierce disputes among the musical avant-garde – recall the debates between Adorno and Stockhausen or between Henze and Lachenmann – have enriched Germany’s intellectual and cultural life as a whole. And above all, the many pinnacles of musical achievement such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen (i.e. Groups;) in 1957 in Cologne, Pendereckis Lukas-Passion (i.e. St. Luke Passion) in 1966 in Münster, Spahlinger’s ephemère in Stuttgart in 1977, Rihm’s Tutuguri in 1982 in Berlin, Lachenmann’s Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (i.e. The Little Match Girl) in 1997 in Hamburg.

Dedicated to another kind of musical experience

Contemporary music from Germany has always been more than Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, more than Stockhausen and Henze. Over 1,000 composers are active in Germany, covering the entire spectrum from easy-listening avant-garde to experimentation advisable only for very experienced ears, who compose works for solo recorder and for large symphony orchestras, that are performed in a back courtyard in Bielefeld just as well as by the Berlin Philharmonic.

What counts is that Germany’s contemporary music is flourishing because there are people who have devoted themselves to it – dedicated themselves to it with heart and soul, who put together festivals in the provinces with only small budgets, who practice with windchimes with elementary school children after school, or who of their own accord rehearse a piece by York Höller on their pianos. Contemporary music is not a compulsory obligation, but rather a challenge to both our senses and our intellect. Surely no one who has accepted this challenge has been disappointed so far!